PUBLISHED:June 01, 2010

Interview with Abby Dennis T'01, L'08, Reardon-Gosnell Mordecai Scholar

What brought you to Duke University?

I grew up in a Duke family. I am the ninth person in my family to go to Duke, and our relationship with the school dates back to when my grandfather played football at Duke in the 1940s. The school has always been a big part of my family, and I’ve been going to football and basketball games my whole life. There was never any doubt that I wanted to go to Duke for undergrad. I applied for early admission, and ended up majoring in economics and minoring in English and religion. It was the only place I wanted to go, and Duke undergrad was everything I wanted it to be.

As a double Dukie, what brought you back to Duke for law school?

After graduation, I worked in college athletics as a sports information director for four years. After awhile, I began looking for a career that would be more challenging for me and also one that would provide more stability. I wanted a career that I would have for the rest of my life. My dad is an attorney. I grew up around the law and was always fascinated by it, so law school was a natural choice. At first, I wasn’t really thinking of attending Duke for law school — I didn’t want “Undergrad Version 2.0.” A couple of people, however, convinced me to look at Duke, and I went through the process of applying for the Mordecai Scholarship and ended up getting it. The decision was pretty easy at that point. I don’t know how you could walk away from a full scholarship to a top ten law school.

What did you enjoy most about Duke Law?

Duke Law is a very humane place to go to law school. Everybody knows each other, and you’re very close with everybody in the community. As a law student, I found that the faculty was very approachable and made great mentors. I really miss those relationships now.

How has being a Mordecai Scholar helped you in your career?

The most important thing has been flexibility. I have been able to make career decisions without the concern of debt. For example, I was able to clerk for the Honorable Susan H. Black on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Jacksonville, Fla., because I didn’t have massive financial strain and didn’t have to immediately work for a law firm.
The Mordecai Scholarship has also opened doors for me because of name recognition. If there is a Duke person at a law firm, they recognize the scholarship when you’re interviewing. Judge Black recognized it when I was interviewing for my clerkship. The Mordecai Scholarship has done so much for me. I am very fortunate.

Where are you working now and what type of law do you practice?

I work at Boies, Schiller & Flexner in its Washington, D.C., office. Boies Schiller specializes in litigation, so most of my work involves commercial litigation. I applied to the firm during my clerkship, and I was very fortunate, in more ways than one, to land this opportunity during a very bad economy. I love the people I work with, and I am doing interesting substantive work, just as I had always wanted to do.

Do you recall your first gift to Duke?

My first gift was $20.01 to the Trinity Class of 2001 Class Gift. I’ve given almost every year since then. After graduating from the Law School, I’ve increased my giving to include the Law School Class of 2008 Scholarship and the Clinical Programs Fund. I’ve also recently made a multi-year pledge to the School.

Why is financial aid important to you?

Duke has done a lot for my family. My grandfather, Paul Stephanz T’50, was the middle of five children and couldn’t have attended a school like Duke without a football scholarship. My other grandfather, Paul Dennis Div.’46, was a Methodist minister, so my dad was able to attend Duke for a reduced tuition. People in my family are very loyal to Duke because of the opportunities we’ve had. My grandparents are charter members of the Iron Dukes. Recently, my uncle and aunt endowed the Bess and Paul Stephanz Scholarship in my grandparents’ honor, and my parents give each year. It’s important to acknowledge the opportunities that Duke has given our family.

How has that awareness changed now that you’re out in the real world?

I knew when I was thinking about law school that taking on $200,000 in debt was a lot of money. My parents have always talked about not taking on too much debt and being wise with your money. When I applied to law school, my parents said, “We’re not helping you with tuition. This is your thing.” At the time, I didn’t make a lot of money, so I understood the monetary value of the education and did not want to be saddled with a lot of debt after graduation. Financial aid was very important.

Attending Duke on the Mordecai Scholarship is the best decision I have ever made in my life. I’m so grateful for the scholarship and to my donors, Abigail Reardon and Arthur Gosnell. Giving back to enable other people to go to the Law School on reduced tuition is something that is really important to me. I need to give back to the school. Duke gave me an incredible opportunity, and you don’t just take that opportunity and walk away. I’ve been really fortunate. It becomes more apparent every day.

What would you tell other alumni about the importance of giving for financial aid?

If you loved your experience, and Duke Law had a positive impact on your life, you should think about giving back. Every little bit helps, and getting into that cycle of giving is important. I made hardly any money when I first came out of undergrad, but I gave because giving helps perpetuate and grow something you were a part of. You’re helping Duke grow so that other people can have the same experience.